Thursday, April 6, 2017

Men, Women, And The Line Between Objectification and Empowerment

I'm about to wander into a minefield.

I want to offer a man’s perspective about whether or not women's attempts at empowering women actually do or don’t empower them in the most meaningful sense of the word - at least based on how men perceive or experience this quest. Just what everyone was hoping for, right? A man talking about women's empowerment. I just ask that you bear with me. I am increasingly convinced that unless we build a bridge between how men and women understand this issue we will not make necessary progress as a culture.

I will not be building the entire bridge with this article. Not even close. At best, I am offering a supporting strut by attempting to explain how men view this issue for the sake of clarity and truth. I want to live in a world where everyone is granted intrinsic value as human beings, a world where justice and peace rule the day. That's my goal, and I hope these thoughts contribute to that end. 

Let's tiptoe through this.
* * * * *

We live in a visual culture, a world in which the medium is often just as impactful as the message. Content, said media analyst Marshall McLuhan, cannot easily be separated from form.  In addition to just being a visual culture, we are increasingly a pornified culture. The statistics are sobering to say the least. Thanks to the internet, we have access to pornography in ways that are unprecedented in the history of the world. The vast majority of consumers are men. 70% of men ages 18-24 visit porn sites in a typical month. Why? Because nature or nature’s God (depending on your worldview) has wired men to be visually stimulated. I don’t think this is a debated issue. Men are turned on by sight.  Psychology Today quoted several researchers who have noted, “Men’s brains are designed to objectify females.” They talk about the unwilled connection between a man's brains and his genitals that begins with a sensitivity to visual cues. "Men’s brains scrutinize the details of arousing visuals with the kind of concentration jewelers apply to the cut of a diamond.”

Add to that a culture that now bombards men with sexually stimulating visual images, and it’s no surprise that men who are being fed a steady diet of these images are increasingly displaying the destructive results: erectile dysfunction at younger and younger ages ; the inability to connect with or be satisfied with the women in their lives; and the reality of addictions that rewire the brain. It's what Dr. Jill Manning calls the social cost of pornography.

But beyond those immediate effects there is an even more damaging result, and that is the lie of porn that men subconsciously absorb: All women are like that. All women secretly want to, well, do what women do in porn. It is very easy for men to project this from the one to the many.  Psychology Today offers a rather grim conclusion:  If "a virile man’s libido can instantly be set off by one or more visual cues—that, in turn, compel him to take direct (i.e., orgasm-related) action, then how could he not view women as vehicles of (or receptacles for) his unruly lust?" Part of undoing the damage of porn is taking the time to relearn what real women are like. Most men don't do that, and if stats are correct, we are in deep trouble as a culture in this area.

I want to make something very clear at this point: I am criticizing the men who choose to give into and even cultivate the baser parts of their nature as well as the culture that allows and even encourages this. Women bear the brunt of this, and that's a tragedy. Please keep this in mind as you read the rest of this article: I am not calling out women. I'm revealing how the downward spiral of men in this area is creating a huge problem in male/female relationships that must be acknowledged honestly before it can be addressed properly. 

In this midst of a culture that has turned the male objectification of women into a huge business, women continue the long and noble quest to be treated with justice as equals, and rightly so. This empowerment has been pursued through fair economic practices, equal education opportunities, fair representation politically and socially, etc. These are all good and necessary ways to right historical wrongs.

There is one way, however, that is often pushed front and center as a crucial way in which women have not yet reached equality: the public enjoyment and expression of sex and sexuality. Sex/sexuality is a fundamental part of our human nature; in the same way the equality is a noble goal in the other areas previously mentioned, equality in this area is as well.

My argument today is that the public manner in which this has been pursued  - and it's important to note I am making a distinction between the public arena and not private relationships -  may be empowering to women (that is, it gives them power and control over this aspect of their lives), but it is not causing men to view women with increasing respect and dignity. It's not creating a culture of honor. If anything, the opposite is true. 

The argument for the push for the bold, public expression of sexuality (at least as I understand it) goes something like this: Men have always had the upper hand when it comes to sex. They are “players” when they are promiscuous while women are “whores.” They are studs while women are loose. They build their reputation based on conquests while women lose theirs. They have always been in a position of power in sexual relationships. This is clearly an issue of justice. Both sexes should build or lose their reputational resume based on the same kind of actions. Both sexes should have a say in the give and take of sexual relationships.

In response to the double standard, women have pushed back by taking behaviors that were considered slutty or demeaning and reclaiming it by taking an instigating position of power. Check out all the books on the hook up culture: time after time, women talk about entering a domain that was once the power position for men (promiscuity, hook ups, etc) and taking the initiative. If women have the power – that is, they are controlling their sexual expression on their terms – it is considered empowering.  

I understand the motivation for pursuing empowerment in this area. Many men have been duplicitous jerks when it comes to sexual mores for much of human history. The movement for sexual empowerment among women highlights this hypocrisy and focuses on an area of life that has been demeaned or vilified rather than celebrated as an important and meaningful part of our humanity. We are, among many other things, sexual beings. There is no reason to be ashamed of that. So as far as the argument for why women are fighting back in this way, I think I understand both the motivation and the goal.

However, I need to be honest about how men generally view this movement toward empowerment through sexual expressiveness. I’m painting with a broad brush – not every man is like this, and not every man is content to be stuck here [1] – but it’s worth understanding how this plays out in the minds of most men.

Men are visually stimulated beings, as I noted before. There is a reason strip clubs are almost entirely populated by men watching women. When men see women pursue empowerment through public sexual boldness (nudity, sexually provocative dancing, etc), they aren’t thinking, “I am so glad she is at peace with herself and bold about her sexual nature!” They are thinking – and sometimes singing -  “I could tap that.”

Crude? Maybe, but I'm just being honest. The shift of power does not change the tendency of men to objectify that which is offered as an object. They don’t care why the skin exposed; they just know they like it. Yes, your eyes are up there, but a man’s eyes will go where they are invited. Eventually, men begin to see not the women as women but as a conglomeration of their body parts. At that point, her mind, her personality, her gifts and talents, her hopes and dreams – those are farther back in the average man’s mind than women can imagine. Comedian Larry Miller once noted, "Women say they have sexual thoughts too. They have no idea. It's the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it. If they knew what we were really thinking, they'd never stop slapping us." That’s an unfair overstatement, but it elicits groaning laughter because men know it hits close to home.

If you think, “Men just need to control themselves,” you are absolutely right. [2] There is nothing about what I am saying that defends the ogres who make crude comments, stare lasciviously, or become physically aggressive. I’m just being honest about the interior life of men: we are visual, and we will focus on the things to which you invite our focus. If a man studiously looks you in the eyes when other areas are publicly begging for attention, he is hard at work honoring women by mastering his default reactive tendencies.

This is not true in any of the other categories I mentioned. When women are empowered through wages, education, and leadership, these all elicit admiration and honor from men. These demand and receive much more of an appreciation of women as women, not as objects of entertainment or pleasure.

But this new age of empowerment through sexual boldness is a different story. This is not eliciting admiration and honor in men. It’s eliciting leering glances, a fixation on body parts, and time alone with the pictures or videos that capture the moment. Next time women march topless, check out who’s taking pictures. It’s men, and they aren’t capturing the moment as a great step in women’s rights. They think it’s awesome that they get to see boobs.

All the scandalous Instragram photos? The wardrobe malfunctions? The ‘daring’ movie scenes where women make ‘artistic’ statements through nudity? That’s going on a website that chronicles nude scenes in movies, and thousands of men will use that for their own self-gratification. Boldly public sexual expression may be done for the most noble and self-empowering reasons, but I’m just telling you the truth: men don’t process it the same way women do. There is a chasm between the mood women believe they have created and the mood men are enjoying.

I thought of this when I saw Carrie Underwood’s ACM appearance the other night. Social media immediately began talking about the“nude ensemble” she wore  to the event. Buzzfeed was tellingly blunt: “We Need To Talk About Carrie Underwood's Legs At The ACM Awards.”  

Was she beautiful? Absolutely. Is she a great singer? Undeniably. (I’m a big fan). I understand why women admire her and wish they could be talented as she is. But that camera was just a short angle away from capturing some scandalous moments, and I promise you that the men in the audience – particularly those in the first several rows - were not listening to her sing right then.  They were looking, and wondering. This happens all the time in entertainment. Beyonce, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus.  The bold, public celebration of sex/sensuality/sexuality is the new norm on what it means to be strong and brave. Just for the record: in that kind of public venue, while women see empowerment, men see legs.

Remember I said that men subconsciously absorb messages from porn that they then ascribe to the women around them? They do the same thing with pop culture celebrities - the 'nude' dresses on the red carpet, the wardrobe malfunctions and actions on the stage, the sexually aggressive lyrics. Men begin to believe this is the kind of attention all women want. When it turns out that's not the case in most of the women around them, it gets very confusing. "But I thought you wanted us to ogle/say stuff like rap stars do! Why aren't you twerking with me at this wedding reception dance???"

Dr. Caroline Heldman, chair of the Politics department at Occidental College, has given a famous Tedx Talk called "The Sexy Lie." She gave an interview with in which she offered some very insightful comments on this topic. 
"I think for women it's hard to be empowered today because we're born into a culture that teaches women to view our bodies as projects. We make our bodies our primary value, and we're taught to do that very young, well before we're conscious of being thinking, acting beings. 
We're given this system that if women achieve what we’re told to—the height of beauty, the height of attractiveness—then it's not an empowered position. It's actually a subordinate position where our identity exists in our sexuality and our being exists to please others. I think this is the biggest barrier to women's empowerment—the fact that we're taught to make our bodies our primary value—so that even if we become the most valuable in that scheme we've been given, we're not in a position of power... If you're a sexual subject, then you own your sexuality and you're acting upon it. But if you're a sexual object, then there's an assumption that you're being acted upon. 
[When] Jean Kilbourne... came out with "Killing Us Softly" thirty years ago and then Naomi Wolf in 1981 came out with a book on beauty culture, the emphasis was on being beautiful and the impossible standards of beauty that entertainment and popular culture present to women. But then in the last ten years we've actually seen the emergence of something that I call "porno beauty culture" which is like beauty culture, there's still this pressure to be beautiful, but then there's also this additional layer because pornography has moved into the mainstream—it's not enough to be pretty, you also have to be sexually available. 
Being sexual refers to one’s individual sexuality. Being sexy means that you're putting yourself out there for someone else. So it is by definition a subordinate position, a suffocating position if you will. I call this "the sexy lie," this idea that sexy is empowering, when it just isn't. Being sexual could be empowering, while being sexy is never empowering; it’s acting as if your sexuality exists for someone else, and by definition, you're not in a position of power in that exchange... 
I have yet to see a presentation of women's sexuality in popular entertainment culture that is about women and her sexuality. Since Hollywood can't get violence right, I'd prefer they do less of it, and because Hollywood can't get women's sexuality right, I'd prefer to see less of the damaging stuff. I think most sex and violence is gratuitous, it's salacious, and it's damaging. Most sexuality is damaging to women and most violence sends very damaging messages to young men. I would love to see us having discussions about it. We have discussions about pollutants in the air, but we don't have a discussion about pollution on the big and little screens that have profound effects on how our society holds together and interacts, in how individuals interact with one another.
I want women (and men) to be justly empowered; I want women and men to honor each other. I want to live in a society where people are valued as people with intrinsic value, worth and dignity, not one where there value is dependent on their production, desirability, or utility.

I don’t think the sexual empowerment movement as it is currently unfolding is accomplishing these goals. In fact, I think it’s sending the women’s empowerment movement in the opposite direction. I, for one, don’t want women to lose ground. [3]



Why can’t women just be beautiful and dress how they want to? I’m not interested in being part of the fashion police. I tried to be clear that I am talking about public venues where there is a carefully orchestrated choice of outfits. Men will respond in very specific ways to something purposefully chosen to accentuate what a woman wants to have seen. This is just an FYI. Do with that what you will.

Does this mean it’s up to women to dress like hermits so men aren’t intrigued?
Of course not. Beauty is beauty, and there is no need to be ashamed of the masterwork of the human body when celebrated properly. No matter what people wear, others will be attracted. It’s a healthy and normal part of human nature. A lot of women have been shamed for wearing outfits that don't hide their beauty. If a guy can't handle that, shame on him.

Does this mean women who are immodest or blatantly provocative are ‘asking for it’? Not in the least. And it certainly doesn't mean men are ever justified in speaking crudely or acting inappropriately. But if you say, “I have a dream!” while you are marching topless, men will have a dream too – and it won’t be the dream you are having. If you sing about someone loving you for who you are, and you sing it in a peek-a-boo outfit, your idea of love and a man’s idea are likely going to be very different indeed.

Are you saying women should just let men should be the only empowered ones in terms of sex and sexuality? Not at all. First of all, men have abused their power. I think I’ve made it pretty clear that men are hardly the standard bearers on this issue. Men need to reign it in, no doubt about it.

Second, I’m talking primarily about public venues. I don’t think brazen displays of sexuality by men or women in public benefit anyone. Private relationships such as marriage, however, are a different story. There ought to be a balance of power - if power must be used as a descriptor. I don’t want to control my wife; I want her to be bold and confident in every area. Frankly, though, we don't talk about power. We talk about love as displayed through mutual self-sacrifice and servanthood.



A friend of mine wrote the following after reading an early draft of this article:"The Ariana Grandes and Carrie Underwoods are the bird's eye view of female empowerment, but there is value in the close up and possibly more 'real' sounding ideas and problems the topic presents." I agree. What follows are comments from some women who read this article and offered some personal insights on a topic that hits close to home. 

Comment:“This is the kind of thing I want my girls to clearly understand, and it feels so hard so much of the time for women to walk that line between being comfortable in their own body and with their own beauty, and being wise and considerate at the same time. Another part of what makes this a tough call in real life is the level of subjectivity when it comes to modesty (as opposed to things like "nude dresses" which are clearly in one camp). People will never agree on flattering vs. immodest, I don't think. There are clear extremes that probably everyone agrees with, but there is a lot of difference in opinion/experience that impacts this discussion, too.”

Response: "It feels so hard so much of the time for women to walk that line between being comfortable in their own body and with their own beauty, and being wise and considerate at the same time." Well said. I would offer a challenge to men: Be safe. Be respectful. Be full of honor. We, too, need to be wise and considerate. There is a mutual challenge here for both sexes. However, I want to put the pressure on men to grow up, reject that which feeds our baser urges, and commit to becoming better men who provide a safe and honoring environment no matter what is presented to us.

Comment: "I am not sure if the goal of women's sexual empowerment is often changing the hearts and minds of men. I'm sure for some it's, 'I will wear this because I love it, it makes me feel sexy, and to hell with anyone who can't deal with it. RAWR.' I agree with there being a sliding scale of modest to flattering to inviting ogling. Heck, I'm even distracted when someone has some huge amount of cleavage out--it's hard to have a real conversation when someone seems like they forgot part of their clothing in the closet. However nothing short of a burka is going to not show off a woman's figure to some degree---I think you are talking about extremes in this piece, though as you say a man will always have to do the hard work of mind/heart control. Woman don't have to make it a near impossible task. I'm glad you included the bit about dressing a certain way isn't 'asking for it'--that's the obvious slippery slope. 'Well, what were you wearing when you got raped?'" 

Response: I like Dr. Heldman's distinction between sexual vs. sexy. I would add that I don't think anyone should feel the need to hide one's natural beauty. If men find particular women attractive, they will notice no matter what the women wear. That's not a bad thing. That's a normal and healthy part of being human. I will let you all weigh in on the modesty issue from a woman's perspective. My challenge to men is that we MUST be real men; we must honor women with our minds, eyes, words and actions so that we a) never express anything that objectifies, demeans, or damages, and b) commit to reordering our minds so that our instinct is honor no matter what the situation.

Comment: "Overall I agree with what you're saying. However, on any given day I am bombarded with people giving their opinions on what I should and shouldn't wear, from leggings to swimsuits to whether or not my shoulders should show. I get what you are saying, I really do. But I am exhausted by it. How many articles have you run across about what men should look/feel/act like on any given day? How often are men subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) told to bear the brunt of responsibility for both sexes when it comes to sexual purity? I don't think you are one of those men. I just feel for the women who feel like they can't win, myself included."

Response: I hear you. I cringe that men have so often been given a pass by both American and church culture in this area. Men have a responsibility to deal with temptation. Men have a responsibility to control their eyes. Men have a responsibility to always honor the autonomy and purity of women.

Comment: "One thing I would be curious about from a man's POV is how the disconnect for female celebrities/dancers/strippers on how their empowerment comes across to men and impacts your everyday view of women. It is easier to judge and dissect the famous and the extreme. Most of us live somewhere in the middle, though. Is the feminist movement in general tainted by a few like the ones you mentioned? Can you appreciate the satisfaction and self-esteem boost your sister or wife or female coworker has when dressing in a flattering way, or is that inconsequential? Though it may seem purely superficial, feeling good about how you look is an everyday type of struggle with a lot of women. When we do get the time to put effort into appearance, the whole thing seems like it's a trap that backfires because of some primal reflex in men we should be dancing around. Not saying it isn't true, just feels like another thing swatted down and an imbalance of responsibility."

Response: I will repeat what I said earlier: "Remember I said that men subconsciously absorb messages from porn that they then ascribe to the women around them? They do the same thing with pop culture celebrities - the 'nude' dresses on the red carpet, the wardrobe malfunctions and actions on the stage, the sexually aggressive lyrics. Men begin to believe this is the kind of attention all women want. When it turns out that's not the case in most of the women around them, it gets very confusing. 'But I thought you wanted us to ogle/say stuff like rap stars do! Why aren't you twerking with me at this wedding reception dance??'"

"Can you appreciate the satisfaction and self-esteem boost your sister or wife or female coworker has when dressing in a flattering way, or is that inconsequential?" Absolutely. I love when my wife does this, and if I had daughters I would feel the same. This article is not about those who "live in the middle." I think the trap comes not from ordinary women in the ordinary course of life but from the cultural mood of objectification that enables the male tendency to objectify. Unfortunately, women can contribute to this culture even while having the best of intentions (see Dr. Heldman's quote again).

If you feel like you have to "dance around men," that's on us men. We need to step up. We are not brute animals at the mercy of our design and instinct. We are moral agents; we can do the hard work of being better men. We men must demand it in ourselves and in our fellow men - and women, don't be afraid to demand it from the men around you as well. 


[1]  I do not believe that men are helpless victims of their biology. I don’t believe that men are incapable of control. I’m making a distinction between instinctive reactions and chosen/learned actions. A man will instinctively react to the beauty of a gorgeous woman who crosses his path (“Woah!”), but that does not mean he is at the mercy of this reaction. Men can choose what to do with that, can choose how to channel it, can choose even to work at learning a different response. But even if the reaction is unfiltered instinct, what a man does with that is the most important thing. A culture saturated with the dehumanizing nature of porn nurtures men to become objectifiers of women at best and predators at worst. It does not have to be this way. We become what we habitually think and do. We can think and do better.

[2]  We can and should demand that men never cross lines of propriety, verbally or physically, but we can’t demand that men change how they as men are made to respond. Their eyes will go where invited; their minds will follow their eyes; their actions will tend to eventually follow their minds. That’s on them, but that’s just reality.

[3]  I think the solution is Christian community. It begins with salvation, freedom from the chains of sin, and the spiritual healing of that which is fallen in us. Second, it's the ongoing process of "renewing our minds" in the community of like-minded individuals. That's one reason I see church built on a genuinely biblical model as the only real, lasting hope for the world. It's in the healthy boundaries of God's laws of love, the ongoing renewal of the Holy Spirit, and the challenge and encouragement of God's people that I become the man I need to be.

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